It's been a while since we've seen one of the best basketball players on the planet on a court. October 10, 2019 was the day. More than 600 days have passed since Elena Delle Donne celebrated with her Mystics teammates after defeating the Connecticut Sun to win the 2019 WNBA title. Everything that's happened since, well, there's a lot. She sat out the 2020 season due to health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In that time, she underwent back surgery for a herniated disc. Then rehab. Then another back surgery after a re-herniation in her back. The process to get back has been a lengthy one, but she's aiming for a return this season.
As Delle Donne continues to rehab, she took time out to surprise one of the nation's top basketball players with an incredibly prestigious award. Saniya Rivers, who's committed to playing basketball for Dawn Staley at the University of South Carolina, received the treat of a lifetime when Delle Donne told her she won the 2020-21 Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year award. Delle Donne spoke to Rivers virtually while the preps star shared the moment with her family and teammates at her high school in Wilmington, North Carolina. Rivers joins a star-studded list of past winners that includes Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Maya Moor and Paige Bueckers.
In an exclusive interview with CBS Sports, Delle Donne discusses the honor of presenting Rivers with the award, the advice she passed along while also touching on her new Mystics teammates, the early success of this WNBA season and much more.
CBS Sports: How does it feel to be part of the Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year award presentation?
Elena Delle Donne: I'm always honored to be a part of this presentation. I've been able to do it for a couple of years now and I'm always honored to be able to experience that joy and that surprise moment. It gets better every time I do it. I even get nervous every time I do it too because it's such a big surprise, it's the best award you can get in high school basketball so I try to make it a great surprise. Obviously, this time I was doing it from Zoom … my first time doing it that way, which comprised different problems but this was one of my favorite surprises because of the emotion Sinaya showed and the excitement her teammates had for her. It was a really great moment.
CBS: What advice would you give Sinaya, who has already reached an incredible level as a prep player, as she prepares for the college level?
DD: Honestly, by her getting to this level it shows she has the work ethic, the dedication and the passion for it, so more of the same in that aspect. But I also try to say to live in the moment and enjoy what you're experiencing right now because it's such a crazy time where, like, high school's finishing up, there's summer workouts and things you have to do to prepare for South Carolina so it can be a time where you're so worried about the future that you don't even live in the moment and experience this incredible award that she received today and all the other things that are going to come. That was my main message to her. Seriously, it's like a blink of an eye - and I'm almost going to be 32 - and I can remember my high school experience and it goes by so fast.
CBS: 2020 was a turbulent year across the board, what is something that you took away from such a challenging year?
DD: The ability to pivot and change the comfort of what we've been used to. Being able to adapt and try to still have a little bit of normalcy and still interact with others in a way that might not be in person but rather virtually. That's been the biggest thing is trying to find ways to still be with people, and luckily, it's getting back to feeling a little bit more normal but it's certainly been a long haul. Just taking those days and those moments to catch your breath and see how you're doing that day. And it's alright if you're having a bad one. We're all going to experience emotions and tough times and I think you have to give yourself time to be easy on yourself and not always beating yourself up on those tough days.
CBS: Not having basketball as an outlet, dealing with injuries, are you more hyped than ever to get back on the court and just start hooping again?
DD: Yes! I am. As normal as things feel like getting back, being around the team but the moment I can actually step on the court and play it's going to be huge. It's been quite the whirlwind. Going through back surgery is already a lot, but to do it during COVID and having that isolation feeling and having moments where I just feel like 'are we ever getting out of this?' It will be huge the day I get to do it.
CBS: How is this Mystics team different from the 2019 title team and do you see the potential of a deep run with this squad?
DD: We're different because there's literally only a few faces that were on the 2019 championship team so it's a completely different team. You can try and be a leader from afar, you can try and learn people's tendencies by watching, which is obviously what I'm doing now, but the best way to get your flow with new teammates is to actually jump in there and pay with one another so I'm excited to get on the court and see where people like to be, what positions they're most confident in and get our flow going together.
CBS: What have been your early takeaways from the start of the WNBA season?
DD: It's been a great season already. I feel like all the games have felt so close. There's been a lot of game-winners. What you see is when you have a league with only 12 teams and only 11-12 players on a roster it means that every night any team can compete with the top teams. It's very fun to watch, not just because I'm a player and I'm a part of it, but I would think for the fans too because every night it's a battle.
CBS: I usually ask every athlete what their favorite shoe to hoop in is, but I already know what it would be for you. So can you describe what the Nike UNVRS sneaker means to you?
DD: (Laughs) Yeah, that's my favorite! I mean, we developed it from nothing. From the ground up. I feel like it's a shoe very specific to not only me, but it's a shoe for all. That's the biggest takeaway I had when creating this shoe. I wanted it to be a shoe that my sister could wear, who has severe special needs. I wanted it to be for maybe a kid who doesn't tie their shoes yet. I wanted it to be for an avid basketball player because it just functions at such a great level. It was super fun coming up with different ways to make the shoe work for everyone and it does so that's what I'm so proud of about it.
CBS: Nike recently launched a hands-free sneaker - the GoFlyEase - you've advocated for brands to make shoes more accessible to special needs users - what are your thoughts on this move by Nike?
DD: It's pretty incredible to see where this all started and where it is now. It all started with a letter from Matthew Walzer, who wanted an accessible shoe that he could put on himself and wear and look cool. From there on Matthew and I developed a relationship and FlyEase happens! Literally, Nike has put the greatest brains together to create these incredible, accessible shoes. The best people have been a part of it. And it's really turned into a brand that is helping others, is super cool and it's something that's going to continue to grow. I'm so proud to be a part of that.
CBS: You have to get up and go, what's the one sneaker you're grabbing?
DD: (Deep thought) Gosh … you know it's probably a tie between a Jordan 1 and a Nike Blazer. Those are my two go-to sneakers that I know will just tie in with any outfit I've got on.